A CENTURY OF GRACE JUNE 27,1915-OCTOBER 5, 2015 By Stephen Ward
A CENTURY OF GRACE
THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF GRACE LEE BOGGS
JUNE 27,1915-OCTOBER 5, 2015
Grace Lee Boggs was a philosopher and revolutionary who devoted her long and full life to making an American revolution. As a comrade to many, as well as a daughter, sister, aunt, and step-mother, Grace directly touched hundreds of lives and influenced many more. She believed deeply in the power of ideas, and throughout her seventy-five years of activism, theorizing, writing, and organizing, she consistently challenged herself and others to accept the task of developing ideas, which she saw as essential for revolutionary change.
She was born Grace Chin Lee on June 27, 1915 in Providence, R. I. Her parents, Lin Yan and Chin Dong Goon, had immigrated to the United States from Guangdong Province, China. When Grace was eight years old, her family moved to Queens New York, where she grew up with six siblings: her sister Katherine (Kay), and brothers George, Philip, Robert, Harry and Edward. Grace’s father opened and operated Chinese restaurants in several cities, and Grace spent much of her childhood at his two restaurants in Times Square, “Chin Lee’s” and Chin’s.”
Books and reading played a central role in Grace’s childhood, providing solace and enjoyment in her early years while setting the foundation for the prodigious reading and studying she would do for the rest of her life. She was a talented student, graduating from High School at the age of 15 and winning a scholarship to attend Barnard College (Columbia University). Attending college in the midst of the depression, she decided to major in philosophy and began to ask questions about the world and her place in it. Grace graduated from Barnard in 1935 and then went to graduate school at Bryn Mawr College, where she encountered philosophical texts and ideas that profoundly influenced her thinking. The most important of these was the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, whose ideas formed the foundation of Grace’s concept of dialectical thinking that she made central to her intellectual and political work for the rest of her life. Grace completed her formal studies in 1940, earning a Ph.D. in philosophy at the age of 25.
Just a few months after earning her degree, Grace moved to Chicago where she encountered the black freedom struggle and radical politics, which together solidified her commitment to theorizing and working toward revolutionary change. Grace credited the March on Washington Movement led by A. Philip Randolph with showing her the power of black protest and sparking her commitment to the black struggle. She simultaneously immersed herself in Marxism and radical politics by joining a grouping within the Workers Party (and later the Socialist Workers Party) known as the Johnson-Forest Tendency, led by C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya. Grace moved back to New York, where the group was centered, and emerged as its third leader. Through the rest of the 1940s she played a primary role in the group’s theoretical discussions and writings on the Hegelian dialectic, the historical development of the black struggle, philosophical and political analyses of working class life, and the application of Marxism to mid-twentieth century United States. Among her most impressive contributions, Grace discovered and translated from the original German portions of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the first time that this classic Marxist text appeared in English.
In 1953, Grace moved to Detroit, where she would live the rest of her life. Shortly after arriving in the city, she developed a courtship with autoworker, labor organizer, and radical activist James (Jimmy) Boggs. They had met the previous year as comrades in the same political organization, and now, working closely together publishing the group’s newspaper, Correspondence, they built a relationship based upon their mutual attraction and shared commitment to revolutionary change. Grace and Jimmy married in 1954. Together they organized, wrote, and struggled in dozens of organizations and movements over the course of four decades, building a remarkable partnership as a married couple, political comrades, and intellectual collaborators.
By the 1960s, Grace and Jimmy operated within vibrant networks of black radicals in Detroit and beyond, and they were recognized as important figures in the Black Power movement. Grace was respected in particular for her organizing skills as well as her theoretical and historical understanding of the black struggle. While she avoided the spotlight, Grace played a pivotal role in major developments and organizing efforts of the period, such as the Northern Negro Grassroots Leadership Conference in 1963 (where Malcolm X delivered his famous “Message to the Grassroots” speech) and the Michigan Freedom Now Party in 1964. Grace and Jimmy also conceived and founded groups such as the Organization for Black Power and the Inner-City Organizing Committee. Along with her roles an organizer and activist, Grace made a signal contribution to the development of the Black Power movement through her theoretical work and writings, such as “The City is the Black Man’s Land” (1966), an essay that Grace and Jimmy co-authored, and “The Black Revolution in America,” Grace’s contribution to the groundbreaking anthology The Black Woman (1970).
Through their political and intellectual engagement with the black freedom struggle, and particularly their activity during the Black Power movement, Grace and Jimmy’s understanding of revolutionary change moved beyond Marxist conceptualizations of class struggle, working class insurgency, and the seizing of state power. The 1967 Detroit rebellion helped them to rethink and clarify their concept of revolution. As Grace recalled, the rebellion “forced us to rethink a lot of philosophical questions,” leading them “to draw a clear distinction between rebellion and revolution.” As they moved into this new stage of their activism, Grace and Jimmy put an emphasis on reflection, giving themselves the time and space to carefully consider and learn from past struggles and ideas. In the summer of 1968, for instance, Grace and Jimmy travelled to Sutton Island, Maine where they held several days of conversations on a range of political and philosophical questions with their long-time friends and comrades Freddy and Lyman Paine. The two couples made these conversations an annual practice, some of which were edited and published in their book, Conversations in Maine: Exploring Our Nation’s Future (1978).
Grace and Jimmy put forward the new evolutionary concept of revolution that they developed during the 1960s and early 1970s in their co-authored book, Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, published in 1974. “A revolution is not just for the purpose of correcting past injustices,” they wrote. “The only justification for a revolution is that it advances the evolution of man/woman.” The theoretical and organizing work they did around these ideas, including holding revolutionary study groups with young black radicals in Detroit, led Grace and Jimmy to found their next major political organization, the National Organization for an American Revolution (NOAR). Started in 1978, NOAR projected a concept of “two-sided transformation”—political transformation linked to personal transformation, or working to change society and change oneself simultaneously—that Grace continued to articulate and develop.
With the dissolution of NOAR in the mid-1980s, Grace and Jimmy entered yet another stage in their political work. They took a renewed focus on Detroit and the challenges of post-industrial cities, immersing themselves in community-building efforts and the development of grassroots leadership. These commitments are reflected in the many organizations that Grace and Jimmy founded or participated in during the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s, including Detroiters for Dignity, Save our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD), We the People Reclaim Our Streets (We-PROS), United Detroiters Against Gambling (UDAG), and Detroiters United (DU). The effort that is perhaps most reflective of their ideas and legacy from this period is Detroit Summer, “an intergenerational multicultural youth program/movement to rebuild, redefine, and respirit Detroit from the ground up,” co-founded by Grace and Jimmy in 1992. Detroit Summer put into practice a vision of young people as leaders and initiators of community change, and many of its participants have subsequently inspired, influenced, or are directly engaged in contemporary community-based work in urban agriculture, grassroots media, place-based education, and other areas.
In July 1993, one year after Detroit Summer began, Jimmy died of lung cancer. With the end of their marital, political, and intellectual partnership, Grace again entered a distinctly new phase of her life. Two years later, comrades of Grace and Jimmy formed the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership (BCNCL), of which she was a founding board member. The Boggs Center was Grace’s primary political organization for the last two decades of her life.
Through the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st first century, Grace maintained her active role in Detroit grassroots politics while at the same time receiving greater attention and interest in her ideas nationally. Recognized as both a movement icon and an influential radical thinker, Grace helped to inspire and shape grassroots efforts such as urban agriculture, place-based education, and community production. In 1998, at the age of 83, Grace published her autobiography, Living For Change. For several years after that, she wrote a weekly column under that title for the independent black Detroit weekly newspaper, Michigan Citizen. Well into her 90s, Grace continued to attend political meetings, speak to classes and activist gatherings, and hold on-going conversations with the many people—long-time comrades, emerging activists, community leaders, artists, youth—who came to see her. She gave dozens of interviews and made media appearances on program such as Democracy Now, sharing her evolutionary concept of revolution, one that transforms and empowers people as they struggle to change the world.
In 2011, Grace published her last book (written with Scott Kurashige), The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. In the last years of her life, Grace urged activists to practice “visionary organizing”—grassroots political organizing not focused solely on protesting current injustices, but rather geared toward projecting alternatives and creating new visions for the future. The Next American Revolution provides the historical and theoretical foundation for this type of organizing. “The next American revolution, at this stage in history, is not principally about jobs or health insurance or making it possible for more people to realize the American Dream of upward mobility,” she wrote. “It is about creating a new American Dream whose goal is a higher Humanity instead of the higher standard of living dependent on Empire. It is about practicing a new, more active, global, and participatory concept of citizenship. It is about becoming the change we want to see in the world.”
The documentary film “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” was released in June 2013, the month that Grace turned 98. With the aid of a walker or wheelchair, she participated in screenings of the film, in Detroit and other cities. “I don’t know what the next American revolution is going to be like,” she says at the end of the film, “but we might be able to imagine it, if your imagination were rich enough.” This statement reflects how Grace consistently challenged us to think dialectically, showing us that if we do not allow old ideas to dominate our thinking, we can use our creativity and imagination to envision news ways of relating to each other and the earth, new ways of building our communities, and in the process challenge ourselves to create a new and better world. In calling for this type of thinking, Grace insisted that revolutionary change required us to make time for reflection as well as action. She demonstrated her commitment to this by combining theory with practice over the course of her seventy-five years of revolutionary thinking and activism.
On June 27, 2015, Grace celebrated her 100th birthday. She was unable to attend any of the week-long series of events held in her honor, but she received visitors during the week, including friends and former comrades from across the country. Over the next several weeks, Grace continued to have conversations, as her strength and energy allowed, with the close comrades, friends, and caregivers who spent her final days with her at her home, 3061 Field Street, the house where she lived for 53 years. Grace Lee Boggs died in her sleep on October 5, 2015. She is survived by the thousands of people whose ideas and lives she touched. Grace’s legacy will be felt in the changes to our world we have yet to imagine.